Ethnicity is a Social Construction Too

Those of us who study racial and ethnic relations in the United States recognize that race is a social construction. What race means, the characteristics and features that we attach to it and the classifications within it (whether Black, White, Asian, and the like), is not static or primordial, but dynamic and changeable. The meaning of race, then, is conditioned on and by an always shifting, societal context. For example, at the turn of the previous century, race was constructed as biological. Distinct racial classifications were understood as reflecting genetic and morphological differences, observable by phenotype. Racial disparities and inequities were explained in biological terms linked to ideas of racial inferiority and superiority.

The notion of race as rooted in biology, with consequent outcomes linked to ascribed deficiencies, or racism, is understood today as an attempt by the dominant (white) group to protect their material interests, like Southern plantation owners who relied on slave labor to maximize their profits during the pre-industrial era. In this way, the social construction of race as “biological” — in the absence of any hard proof or genetic evidence — emerged as a social fact to reproduce racial inequality.

Today we are much less likely to associate racial group membership with genetic endowments.[1] At the same time, the concept and category of race as a distinct social group persists in the contemporary period. An individual’s racial group membership or identity is still conditioned in part, on phenotype. What this means is that racial classification is both self-defined and externally-imposed. How an individual racially identifies and how he or she is racially identified by others, both matter. Moreover, an individual’s own, personal racial identity “choice” is often but not always, consistent with that which is assigned to him or her by the outside world. For example, although Tiger Woods identifies racially as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian), most Americans racially identify him as Black only.

Why race as a social construction matters for ethnicity

The dialectical fluidity of race — between self-definition and other-definition, between an individual’s chosen racial identity versus society’s imposed racial identity — facilitates an understanding of race as a social construction. After all, if Tiger Wood’s racial identity does not match that ascribed by the vast majority of American society, then racial identity (although a social fact), is crap beyond the meaning that is attached to it by an individual on the one hand and society on the other. The racial identity mismatch observed in the case of Tiger Woods encourages us to understand race as a less salient, “made up” category of identity, especially when compared against ethnicity, which is self-defined only.

For example, if I was walking down a public street, most Americans would identify me racially as “Latina” but would be less likely to identify me as Mexican-origin. My ethnicity, whether of Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American-origin, is indeterminate; they’d have to ask. Additionally, because ethnicity is self-defined, it presumably has meaning for the person identifying with a particular ethnic group. From this perspective, ethnic self-identity matters for individuals and society in a way that racial self-identity doesn’t.

Ironically, this idea is related to a counterintuitive conception of ethnicity that characterizes it as more fluid than race, because one’s ethnicity is always “optional” (Waters 1990). Here the idea is simply that ethnicity is dynamic, fluid and self-defined; as such, anyone can assert any ethnic identity they choose to. And yet, the ethnic identity that they choose, because they choose it, must matter.

The salience of ethnicity when compared to race is also highlighted in the work of some racial and ethnic scholars who refer to race as a “secondary” category of identity, whereas ethnicity is referred to as an “anchoring” or “primary identity” (Itzigsohn and Dore-Cabral 2000; McDermott and Samson 2005). Moreover, the “maintenance” of ethnicity is thought to foster immigrant group cohesion, which may offer some material protection against a negative societal reception context. In contrast, racial identity formation may take place during a process of assimilation, as immigrants and their descendants “lose” their ethnicity, and with it, close-knit ties and sociocultural support. The characterization of ethnicity as a primary, anchoring identity, the maintenance of which offers protection to group members (whereas racial identity does not), underscores the greater importance and salience that American scholars of race relations place on ethnicity.[2]

The perception of ethnicity as a more salient feature of identity is related to its conception as a socially constructed, self-defined identity. Because there is no other option but the option that is chosen by the individual, whether the option makes (common)sense or not, the option selected is accepted without comment. On the other hand, racial identity may be self-defined but is also other-defined. The person who racially identifies one way may or may not be racially identified that way by everyone else.

The problem with this construction of ethnicity is that it tends to reinforce the idea that ethnicity is somehow more “real” (if more fluid) than race. And if ethnicity is more real than race, then for some scholars, it becomes inherent, primordial. This is the slippery slope of ethnic identity formation and why at times, we may forget that ethnicity is as socially constructed as race.

Remember, ethnicity is a social construction too

I started thinking of the relationship between ethnic self-identification and the tendency to interpret ethnicity as more “real” than race when, as part of a new research project, I read a transcribed interview of a self-identified Mexican-origin entrepreneur. This entrepreneur was born in Mexico by immigrant Lebanese parents, she went to boarding school in France, eventually moved back to Mexico for a short time, then moved to the United States where she has been ever since, and where she married a White American man. Her self-defined ethnicity is Mexican, although she speaks Arabic, Spanish and French. Her racial identity is White, and claims that she doesn’t “feel Hispanic,” even though she has applied for and won awards for being a successful “Hispanic” entrepreneur.

In other words, her racial identity is White (she mentions that “No one considers [me] Hispanic”), although she has on occasion identified as Hispanic for instrumental reasons. Either way, the social construction of race is apparent here. Her ethnicity, on the other hand, was confusing to me. Although she self-identifies as Mexican, her parents are Lebanese, she maintains cultural features that are Mexican and Lebanese, she spent a lot of time outside of Mexico when she was growing up, and she racially identifies as non-Hispanic White.

When I finished reading the interview, I wondered about my easy acceptance of her White or Hispanic racial identity, depending, and my confusion and even discomfort about her ethnic self-identity. Why didn’t I readily accept her as ethnically Mexican, when she said she was? At that point I reached out to some colleague-friends and asked them to weigh in on her ethnic identity. Every one of them said she was Mexican; basically, because she said so. Yet, couldn’t we argue that she is also Lebanese? Why didn’t we stop to consider whether she was “more Lebanese” than Mexican, or both? Then again, since ethnicity is socially constructed as self-identified, why shouldn’t she be classified as Mexican if she says so? The point here is that ethnicity as a category of identity is arguably as messy as the category of race is, and yet, we often take ethnic identity at face value. Regarding this entrepreneur, my colleagues were willing to accept her as Mexican because she said so. This belies a salience not to ethnicity, per se, but rather, to the salience of self-identification.

The acceptance of self-identification as real deserves explicit acknowledgement, because it is the reason why we accept ethnic self-identity choices or options without question. Ethnicity could be just as messy as racial identity, if we constructed it as such. But we didn’t, so it isn’t. In fact, we don’t really care about racial self-identity at all, because whether it converges with society’s externally-imposed identity or not doesn’t really matter. A racial mismatch between an individual’s self-identity and society’s is acceptable, while an ethnic mismatch is not. In the end, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one the individual ascribes to. And yet, this doesn’t mean it is more important or anchoring or inherent than racial identity, just that it is socially constructed as self-identified, so it is perceived as such.

[1] Although this conception also continues to persist. For example, the neoconservative argument that affirmative action is “reverse racism” highlights the undeserved, merit-less, advantages of “less-qualified” racial minorities who benefit from “unfair government” “set-asides” in education and the labor market. More recently, however, observed racial inequality is commonly explained using a “color blind” framework, which is an attempt to explain racial inequality through non-racial means. In other words, to blame “anything but racism” for persistent racial inequality (see Bonilla Silva 2009).

[2] With the exception of critical race scholars, who, in contrast to traditional or mainstream approaches (i.e., the research on assimilation or immigrant incorporation), tend to emphasize race as a systemic or structural force (see the works of Feagin 2006, Moore 2007, and Bonilla-Silva 1997).

Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is author of the book, The New Entrepreneurs: Race, Class, and Gender in American Enterprise.

White Men as the Major “Social Problem”

Journalist and commentator David Sirota has an interesting piece about the reaction to some statements about the role of white men as the typical killers in the mass murders like the ones in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown which he made in an MSNBC commentary and interview with Chris Hayes:

I said that because most of the mass shootings in America come at the hands of white men, there would likely be political opposition to initiatives that propose to use those facts to profile the demographic group to which these killers belong. I suggested that’s the case because as opposed to people of color or, say, Muslims, white men as a subgroup are in such a privileged position in our society that they are the one group that our political system avoids demographically profiling or analytically aggregating in any real way. Indeed, unlike other demographic, white guys as a group are never thought to be an acceptable topic for any kind of critical discussion whatsoever, even when there is ample reason to open up such a discussion.

Calling out white men, and most especially elite white men, as a/the social or political problem is something I have written and lectured on for many years now, but it is still very rare for anyone, commentator or researcher, to even go as far as Sirota does in this important Salon article.

Toward the end of the article even he starts backing off on some of the logical implications of calling out white men and insisting that he is not calling for racial profiling of white men as potential killers. He notes that the current tempered and nuanced conversation of these mass killings is only occurring because “white guys” are the (usually unremarked upon) demographic so dramatically involved:

But the point here is that those tempered and nuanced conversations are only able to happen because the demographic at the center of it all is white guys. That is the one group in America that gets to avoid being referred to in aggregate negative terms (and gets to avoid being unduly profiled by this nation’s security apparatus), which means we are defaulting to a much more dispassionate and sane conversation — one that treats the perpetrators as deranged individuals, rather than typical and thus stereotype-justifying representatives of an entire demographic.

In my White Men on Race (With E. O’Brien) and The White Racial Frame book (soon out in a second edition in February) I have argued that these discussions such as Sirota raises barely begin to raise the issue of the role and significance of white men, particularly elite white men, in creating and maintaining our system of racial oppression, and the supporting social, political, and economic institutions that operate to protect that systemic racism and its white male regulators.

Here is a very brief overview of some historical points I make in that white frame book about that political background and current political reality:

The “founding fathers” created a U.S. origins narrative that was (and still is) substantially mythological, a story in which a mostly anti-democratic, often slaveholding, group of elite white men were said to be heroes championing ideals of equality and democracy for a new United States. These elite leaders created an imagined community, that is, a heralded “democratic” society in which all Americans supposedly shared comradeship. However, contrary to this mythology, the U.S. Constitution did not create a democracy where most adult Americans had the right to participate substantially and freely in political institutions. Native Americans and African Americans, constituting at least a fifth of the population, were excluded. (So were all women) As Vincent Harding has put it, the U.S. constitutional convention was “more like a poorly attended dress rehearsal, with most of the rightful and necessary performers and creators barred from the stage.”

From the beginning, the democratic rhetoric was usually more about public relations and the interests of the white elite than about creating actual democratic institutions. The new U.S. society was highly inegalitarian, with extreme inequality across the color line. The new United States was mostly led by white men who were overt white supremacists. It was a society that had no sense of shared comradeship among its white, black, and Native American residents. In 1843 no less a figure than former president and then member of Congress, John Quincy Adams, asserted in a congressional speech that the United States had never been a democracy because it had long been effectively controlled by a few thousand slaveholders. In this founding era U.S. political institutions were often openly proslavery, and an overtly white supremacist framing and dominance were asserted by many white leaders through these institutions until the ending of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s.

Things mostly did not get better over time, as (especially elite) white men stayed completely in control of major institutions:

During the slavery and Jim Crow eras, the Supreme Court was a clear manifestation of white dominance, for only elite white men served on it. Examining the justices’ decisions on racial matters during most of the legal segregation era, one finds that they regularly reflect the dominant white-racist framing and routinely ignore or dismiss the civil rights counter-frames of Americans of color. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, Supreme Court decisions regularly eroded the civil rights that African Americans had theoretically gained under the 14th and 15th amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution in the Reconstruction era. In the influential 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, a nearly unanimous court (one dissenter) upheld a Louisiana law requiring white-black segregation in public accommodations.

Things changed only because of centuries of protest by Americans of color, and then only as allowed by elite white men once again:

To the present day, the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions interpreting it—almost all made over centuries by elite white men—have greatly shaped the basic contours of the legal and political systems, as well as other societal institutions. Important changes in the system of oppression, such as the official ending of Jim Crow in the 1960s, have come only when many whites have believed those changes to be in their group interest—that is, when there is what Derrick Bell has called “interest convergence” between the interests of the racially oppressed and the interests of whites, especially some in the white male elite.

When will any of the mainstream media call out and discuss various (elite) white male “social problems,” including problems of mass violence like at Newtown, as often and openly as they now do for non-white-male groups?

Notes on Whiteness and Health

Yesterday, a few of us at the Graduate Center hosted an interdisciplinary group of scholars to think critically about ‘whiteness and health.’  Across the day, with a kind of staccato arousal, I was struck by several ideas, including the following:

  • “Actionable Decoys” seemed to emerge as so many of the talks sketched the landscape of global, economic, and health “concerns” that are actually instances of structural injustice and violence in which “whiteness” comes to be privileged, the standard, normative, or even healthy, and people of color or those in poverty hold risk, contamination, disease, TB, waste.  That is the racist landscape which is built into material conditions and cultural constructions;  the “actionable decoys” are the sites of intervention that policy makers and public health advocates address. That is, instead of dealing with the power struggles of the Occupation in the Middle East, or structural/historic injustice in New Orleans following Katrina or in the Rockaways following Sandy, we address (just for a moment) mental illness.  Or, instead of attending to the wide and deep reach of structural racism under the skin and in the mind, we invest in MRI machines and psycho-physiological indicators to “document” how brains light up around racial anxiety. Or, the public health fetish with TB framed as a housing issue, that then enables the state to enter and destroy poor people’s housing (Samuel K. Roberts, Lisa O’Sullivan).


  • My worry of course is that “science” enables and creates a scientific lubrication and justification for the narrow shape of the problem, enabling a violent intervention that situates the problem in the body/mind/housing of racialized (and poor) people as if there were no connection to widening inequality gaps and swelling privilege. Thus, “actionable decoys” are the closing of public housing, obesity campaigns, limits on college access for formerly incarcerated students at the precise same time and as a reaction to the now quite predictable action of a white-boy-with-a-gun who blows up a community. What I want to argue is that actionable decoys appear to be a form of ‘care’, responding to the ‘pain’ and ‘crisis’ in  communities of color (particularly low income), while occluding issues of structure, privilege, history, whiteness-as-healthy, and ultimately generating a privatized market or opportunities for elites (a new pharmaceutical drug, new housing in gentrified neighborhoods, new schools in same neighborhoods).
  • In the language of social science, whiteness gets reinscribed as the independent variable (IV) becomes the dependent variable (DV). The grants we get, the funding and socialization of students are all saturated in a fundamental sea of epistemological violence so that “race disparities” (or “gender disparities” or both) reveal AND occlude the structural conditions of oppression in which gender/race/class/sexuality/disability… emerge as axes of power/lines of analysis – but not the Independent Variable to be ‘fixed. Funding streams fetishize “race” as a predictor (IV) and damage as an outcome (DV), occluding structure, history and the circuits that link privilege and marginalization
  • Several people raised the specter of whiteness becoming a market (Nadia Abu El-Haj, Alondra Nelson, Lisa Brundage, Barbara Katz Rothman). I was struck by the contrast to the hyper-criminalization of people of color. The result then is that if you support the market you can avoid criminalization – the methadone/bupe/oxycotin discussion (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland) was superb on this point – but like enlisting in the military, those with green cards may become citizens. If you give your body to the market or the military – feed the system, you can avoid being criminalized; but if you won’t, or can’t, the cage awaits.
  • There were so many evocative and powerful ‘couplets’ during the same afternoon, it prompted me to think about other kinds of twinings, and the slippage between them. Questions arise about: Who is the addict vs. who is dependent? What is obscured vs. what is privileged?  Likewise, I started thinking about who is the ‘sex addict’ (which a predominantly white, and flourishing industry) and who is the ‘sexual predator’ (more often a person of color, incarcerated)?  In the panel on addition (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland), I was led to wonder about who gets to be medicalized (bupenorphine) and who gets to be criminalized (methadone). And yet, it is so hard to speak about white pathology because as Richard Dyer suggests, it falls apart in your hands, or it appears merely ‘human.’  As Rebecca Tiger’s presentation suggested, it is difficult to talk about the “desire to excuse”Lance Armstrong , without the contrast of  Whitney Houston, because it appears to ‘natural’ and ‘we are all fallible’ when the case is White, and elite. In many ways, this extends the work of Sarah Carney who found that in press accounts of “failure to protect laws” (in which children die through accident while parents are distracted), that Black mothers are treated much more harshly than either white mothers or white fathers.
  • A corollary, as raised by Akemi Nishidi in conversation with Zinobia Bennefield, is that the “vulnerable” group or one under structural attack is often quick to distance from their more vile category-twin.  Thus, communities of color rightfully point to the over-enrollment of special education students who are Black. “We Are Not Crazy” is a rallying cry from communities that have been painted with the lamination of insanity, or even trauma without addressing the structural attack on madness, and the slippery construction of this swampy categorization, the real pain and the fantasy of the absence of pain in those of us not labeled (see Rachel Leibert’s work on this).
  • The eery presence of the (white)absence of white responsibility (more precisely white elites) was with us throughout the afternoon. It is so difficult to hold White people or whiteness  accountable, to speak the structural benefits of whiteness without doubling it as merit.  What this means is that whiteness makes it so hard to critique Lance Armstrong, or the white man whose child tragically dies in the back of his car, but so easy to condemn Whitney Houston, or the black mother when the same happens. It’s as though “white responsibility” is an oxymoron and black blame is redundant. Whiteness as Teflon.
  • Finally, I was struck by the ironies of anti-racist interventions being co-opted and exploited, toward racist (or racial?) ends.  So, for example, the Human Genome Diversity Project, or even the ‘discovery’ of bupe as an alternative to methadone, or the Implicit Association Test which measures unconscious racism, or the early ‘care’ given to persons/housing/communities with TB or VD, all of these presumably (maybe not bupe) emerged out of concern for communities of color, concern about racism, but all of these have been inverted and turned back to racial and often racist purposes, at minimum reiniscribing the very racial “differences”  and disparities they were presumably designed to combat.


~ Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor,  Graduate Center, CUNY

Livestreaming Now: Whiteness & Health Roundtable Today at CUNY Graduate Center (Updated)

The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion

is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):

The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.

The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.

Follow the livetweeting on Twitter at @jgieseking (Jen Jack Gieseking) and @SOSnowy (Collette Sosnowy), and via the #DigitalGC. You can also view the compilation of those Tweets on Storify here.

The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).

What Do You See When You See Me? Students of Color Speak Out

Below is a collection of creative vignettes and poems from a diverse group of Sam Houston State University students who were engaged in projects that involved critical examinations of white racial framing and counter-framing. Their work contests and challenges stereotypes generated by the white racist and gendered framing often deeply engrained in both the minds of dominate group members and subordinate group members who have internalized features of the framing toward their own groups and unacquainted subordinate groups.

The first four vignettes were created by students for their in-class group presentation on “Extending the White Racial Frame” from The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing. The last two poems were created by two students for their personal projects that focus on racial and ethnic, and gendered marginalization:
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By Austin Campbell
African American

I think this is what you think when you see me, I don’t really have to ask. Sure I’m black so I must be a thug, full of ghetto love and talking like “yeah that’s my homeboy” or n-word what’s up? Yeah I’m black so the crack corner must be my throne, and yeah you think you got it all figured out thinking that I come from a really bad home. Oh and don’t forget to clutch your purse when I come your way because you know I’m black and looking for a pay day. So congrats to you for thinking that you’re all right, but I’m going to show you how that’s all a lie. Yes I am black and that true but let me make you aware of something new. No I don’t come from a bad home at all. In fact I may even be living next door to you. Yes my mom and dad got a divorce but my mom and step-dad raised me up too. Using the n-word, nah, that’s not my thing. Some rappers may say it but really that’s not me. And a crack corner or stealing your purse, phss, get out of here. Next time don’t believe every movie you see. You really want to know me then look around your own group and you’ll realize I’m just like you.

So next time you see me what will you say? All I want to know is after hearing me speak, is this what you will see or think when I come by your way?

By Erik Jackson
Native American

Is this what comes into your mind when you hear my name Sky? When I tell you that I am a Cherokee and not a Native American, is this what you think? Or is it when you see me and my Native American hair that you think, “boy I bet s/he can put down the alcohol. They are known for drinking, hell they even have alcohol made after them.” Or maybe it’s a different thought, a thought about the history of how my people have come to be treated by “Americans” and the policies that have been “thankfully given” to us. You know about our lands and our casinos that barely make any money and that we must live on welfare because we spend all of our money on gambling and alcohol. In fact none of these are true about me at all. Yeah I do go by my Cherokee-American background because I’m proud of it. Another thing that might surprise you I bet would be in fact that I nor my parents or anyone in my family for that matter drinks, so no we are not able to “put them down” like you might imagine. Also, we aren’t on welfare, as a matter of fact I live in your basic residential neighborhood and once again no one I know of Native American background works at a casino.

I’m just one of many voices speaking out about Native Americans. In all honesty it’s up to you to believe what you want, all I have to question is this—is this what you will think when you see me, is this what I am to you?

By Benjamin Prochazka
Asian American

Is this what you think when you see me? Yes I wear Sperry’s and I do tend to dress nicely on a regular basis but is this me to you? You think when you see me walk, sure thanks to my genes, I’m a little shorter, with my slanted eyes and jet black hair, and my calm quiet nature, this is me? Or is it my backpack stuffed with things weighing me down that makes you think “wow I bet he has a lot of sushi, and video games, and books in there. He’s probably on his way to study “ right? Well surprise! Most of this isn’t true. I’m an average student, C+ to be honest. You’ll find this hard to believe too that I don’t eat sushi. I’ve never really cared for it. As you can see I don’t have an Asian accent either, shocker right? I dress this way because I’m comfortable in these clothes. You know what I mean because y’all wear the same clothes as I do.

So is this what you think when you see me? Or have you always seen me as one of you?

By Denise Castillo
Mexican American

Is this what comes to mind when I tell you that I am a Latina? Do you automatically assume that I can dance and move my hips really well? Or that I’m an amazing cook because that’s what we are known for? Or is it that you think all the men in my family are lazy and begging for jobs on a street corner and desperately taking any job they can get just so they can have the money to support their family? You probably think that we all live in a small house on welfare in some horrible neighborhood with gang members on every corner. Do you assume that any Mexican you see on the street is illegal? Or that I have some family in jail for doing some illegal activity? Do you think that I eat tacos and rice and beans all day every day? Or that we all have accents or can’t even speak any English for that matter? Well to be perfectly honest with you, none of that about me is true. I am definitely not the best dancer out there and the only one thing I’m really good at cooking is Ramen! All the Mexicans I know are actually very far from being lazy in any way. We work our asses off and a majority of Mexicans I know are very successful in the businesses they are in. I grew up in your average household with my mom and dad and only 1 other sibling. My family is not big at all and not a single one of them has been to jail or involved in any gang related activities. One thing that will be sure to surprise you is that I’m really not a big fan of Mexican food at all so there is definitely no way that I could eat that every day! I have lived here in the U.S. my entire life and English was my first language that I learned. None of the Mexicans I know have an accent and surprisingly most Mexicans here in the U.S. can speak English pretty well.

So is this what you really think of me when you learn that I am a Mexican? Is this how you’ll always picture me?

By Lorin Perez

So Which Side of the Border Do I Belong?
I wasn’t brought up in “the barrio”
But I wasn’t raised in a white suburb either
I have never packed my car with relatives
But I would never just leave them to rot in a nursing home either
I’m not an amazing salsa dancer
But I’m not a lousy dander either
So which side of the border do I belong?

I’ve been called “illegal”
I’ve been called “gringa”
I was not born in Mexico but I am not white
So which side of the border do I belong to?

My mom makes turkey for Thanksgiving
But she makes tamales for Christmas
My dad works very hard every day of the week
But he is not a construction worker
My grandparents instilled American traditions in our family
But they didn’t let us forget our roots
So which side of the border do I belong?

I am a light skinned Hispanic
I don’t fit the stereotypical part of a Mexican girl
Yet I don’t fit the stereotypical part of a Caucasian female either
So which side of the border do I belong?

I can speak English
I’m not addicted to drugs
I have a passion for soccer
I love apple pie
I don’t want twenty kids
I like to put “chile” on my food
I enjoy country music
I don’t like PDA
I will graduate from college
I am religious
I am not racist
I would cry if my dog died
I am intelligent
I am not arrogant
I am unique
I am an individual

I am not only Mexican, and I am not only American
So which side of the border do I belong to?


By Gilisa Walls

I decided to touch on the theory of labeling. In society today it has become the norm to place labels on those by what they wear, how they act, their skin color, and the people they hang around. I wrote a poem based on some of the things I have been labeled and how it makes me feel and how I respond to those labels. I also touched on the topics of discrimination and prejudice because whenever talking about labeling you will always run into those issues as well. Labeling can be anything from calling you or a group of people certain names because of race, gender, beliefs, culture, etc. Most people don’t live up to the labels society places on them because society usually receives their source of information through the media, family values and beliefs, or the people they hang around or admire. Once people label you they feel as if they know exactly what you’re going to do, how you are going to act and react in any given situations. They base this off of past experiences from other people they have labeled the same as you.

If You’re Going to Label Me. . .

Label me as a rare form of a human not lesbian, black, or a female.
There’s only a few of my kind and we are very hard to find.
I’m the one that walks strong with my head high not letting the stereotypes get to me.
The one that knows I’m more than what this society labels me to be.
I’m a rare form of a human that realizes that, labels are only what you wear and put on, but you, you are just pure beauty from the inside out.
Society has labeled me as this stud, this black female, this statistic that all blacks are the same.
They don’t even label me the name that my mom created for me after carrying me for nine months.
They fail to realize that I’m not a part of the African American statistics and that my personality and attitude makes the substance of beauty within, distinguishing me from the rest.
Only a few of us know how to be more than what we are said to be and know how to reflect on the external judgment that comes for us.
From that first breath we breathe, to the time society sets a description of who we are on our lives, to the moments we cherish from overcoming the boundaries and perceptions of what “my kind” should do or how we should act.
There’s going to come a time when we do show weakness, that we like the same sex or that our skin is darker than others; but we, No I, won’t allow myself to let the obvious overtake my greatness.
But if you ever find one like me, that one that is one of a kind, don’t allow your prejudice ways make you assume that I’m just like the rest.
Don’t let your discrimination take over and you attack those of my kind because they are proud to be who they are.
Don’t be about of statistics that acts on prejudice and discrimination and attack or label those that are black.
Be the one that is will to get to know that rare form of a human.
Be the one to make a change towards equality instead of labeling us according to the definitions they give us on TV.

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Conservative Prediction Romney will Lose: RP Too Heavily White

Henry Olsen, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has a very detailed statistical analysis of the polls and predicts that President Obama will win tomorrow. He presents a detailed argument on no less than the National Review online, the programmatic heir of a racist white conservative tradition started by William Buckley, Republican intellectual and supporter of Jim Crow segregation and South African apartheid.

Olsen accents the extraordinary whiteness (especially southern whiteness) of the Republican Party and the 2012 vote, with an omission of the long historical context that other analysts of politics and racism like me have provided, but his conclusions are fascinating and must be very disturbing to Romney’s loyal base. He, not surprisingly, does not dig into the systemic racism of the past or present that lies behind his statistical figures.

He concludes much like more scholarly analysts with detailed historical and contemporary analyses that no matter the result, the Republican Party is in deep trouble:

Win or lose, we are in the twilight of the Age of Reagan. Romney’s efforts have almost recreated the Reagan coalition, but in today’s America that is no longer enough. To prevail in 2014 and beyond, the Republican party will need to learn to adapt its principles to new times and new voters. Echoing Rabbi Hillel, Reagan summoned conservatives to action with two related questions: If not us, who? If not now, when? We must take on this challenge anew as we undertake our rendezvous with destiny and remake the conservative majority Reagan bequeathed to us.

By new voters, he means the voters of color who are likely to make up more than a quarter of tomorrow’s voters, and increasing percentages in the future.

Is (Hurricane) “Sandy” a White Name?

I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and so I’m used to hurricanes. Hurricane Celia was the Big One I lived through as a kid, and still have vivid memories of an entire rooftop of a house, floating down the street in front our house, a street which had become a river of debris. Today, I live in New York City where we’re all bracing for “Hurricane Sandy” and this has me pondering the politics of hurricane naming. At one time, we thought hurricane naming could be sexist ~ can names convey racial politics as well?

The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, once bringing in Greek letters, another round of numbering them, a couple hundred years of using Christian saints’ names, then the recent 40 years of sexism. It’s actually tropical storms that get named, and they retain their names once they reach hurricane strength. Naming storms, rather than, say, calling them by longitudinal and latitudinal numbers, serves a couple of functions: it’s a way to help people remember storms and it raises awareness about storm preparedness. Through most of my childhood, hurricanes were given female names, beginning with the letter “A” and running through the alphabet. That ended in 1978 when some feminists argued it was sexist to only use female names to designate storms. Since then, the World Meteorological Association has adopted the practice of alternating between male and female names. What does it mean that this storm has been designated “Sandy,” a name that spawns Internet memes that revolve around Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in “Grease” (as in this image below).

(Image from Queerty)

Over on the Twitter machine, I posed the question: “Is Sandy a white name?”  A couple of folks (@KatyPearce) disagreed with me there, including Dr. Cherie Ann Turpin (@drturpin) who pointed out that black OR white are not mutually exclusive categories when it comes to names.

She makes an excellent point, but the Internet memes of white-Sandy-from-Grease churn on like the storm.

So, it begs the question: does it matter what name a storm gets called?

I think looking at storm-names, and the storm-naming process, can give us some insight into racial (and gender) politics. The fact is that naming storms is a process that’s steeped in both racism and sexism. Even though the names are (supposedly) approaching gender parity now, the sexism that still permeates the discussion prompts this guidance from the AP style tips page for reporters writing about storms:

– Hurricanes don’t have sexes, no matter what the name. They should be referred to as it, not he or she.

– Avoid bad and sexist puns when using hurricane names. AP’s hurricane entry in the stylebook is worth quoting in full: “And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.”

It’s this that gives me pause about calls like the one by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for more racial diversity in the naming of storms. Meteorology as an industry has been historically (pdf) marked by racial exclusion, yet when someone like Rep. Jackson Lee points out the results of this, she gets pilloried by right-wingers for arguing for “affirmative action” for hurricanes.  That said, I fear the mindless racism that would be unleashed by naming a storm something that might be deemed identifiably African American.

Still, there’s some irony in the juxtaposition between the images of women featured on the front page of the World Meteorological Organization’s website – the organization that’s responsible for naming storms – and the image collectively conjured at the name “Sandy.”  Perhaps it’s time for another change in storm-naming, maybe drawing on Mayan gods or supernatural beings, rather than reifying U.S. pop culture constructions of white femininity.

Racially Framed Social Science Increasing

Recently, two articles in important sociological journals have contributed further to the white-framed sociological discourse of race. The latest edition of Sociological Theory (June 2012) published Shiao, Bode, Beyer, and Selvig’s “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race,” an essay that argues for reinvigorating biological understandings—more specifically, the “biosocial causation”—of race. A number of problems accompany this piece, the primary being its white-framed perception of races contorted by biologism/eugenics and a pained attempt to be “scientific.” Reverting to Eurocentric scientific racism is a sign of the times, increasingly used to de-legitimate the status, societal position, and social, economic, cultural, political-legal rights and empowerment of people of color.


Possibly more alarming than the Sociological Theory (ST) piece on race is a short essay in the July 2012 issue of Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews (CS) [pdf]. The Editor’s Remarks on Booker T. Washington and Robert E. Park’s The Man Farthest Down subtly frame racial discourse from a white perspective. Indeed, this type of “under-the-radar” white framing appears to be more problematic than more obvious forms discovered in the ST article, because it 1) often goes undetected, thus unchallenged; 2) reinforces dominant white-framed beliefs subconsciously and piecemeal; and 3) often passes as “universal,” “objective” (nonbiased), and therefore “race neutral” exposition.

To grasp the white framing of race operating in the CS Editor’s Remarks, it is helpful to have some background knowledge of Washington and Park. Both were extremely important in developing mainstream ideas about race in society (Washington) and sociology (Park). Washington was the most influential African American leader of the early twentieth century, who espoused a social philosophy of a black socio-economic self-sufficiency, evading racial conflict and criticism of white racism, and pragmatic accommodation to whites in power. After acting as Washington’s secretary, Park helped establish Chicago School sociology and lead the study of race in academic sociology. Park’s framework for understanding race, with its focus on the four-stage race relations cycle and Euro-assimilation, continues to define the sociology of race.

As the Editor’s Remarks observe, “the four-stage race-relations cycle [is] still taught to undergraduates.” Park is credited with shifting the study of race away from biological to cultural explanations of races and differences among races. However, this claim of Park’s departure from social Darwinism is largely refuted by a number of race scholars, such Ralph Ellison (1964), John Stanfield (1985), and Vernon Williams, Jr. (1996), among others. They point out that Park espoused racial prejudices when discussing whites and people of color and that his explanations of the segregation of races are intellectual tools easily used to justify white supremacy. Park assumed that all “primitive” races (i.e., people of color) aspire to assimilate to the social world and behaviors of the “civilized” white race.

Ethnicity, culture and assimilation paradigms developed by Park, and then Gunnar Myrdal, Milton Gordon, the Nathan Glazer-Patrick Moynihan team, and practiced by many contemporary sociologists, outline an unrealistic depiction of race. The study of ethnicity and culture routinely avoids discussion of ideational and material realities of race/s, the white-imposed hierarchy and systemic ordering of racial groups, and societal effects of institutional, structural and systemic racism. Ethnic and cultural studies are normally framed from a white perspective that neglects crucial socio-historical differences between European migrants and migrants of color from different parts of the globe and tends to position European cultures over other worldwide cultures. In the US, white ethnic groups have largely disappeared and assumed a generic white identity (see the ethno-racial categories listed in the US Census or any job application), whereas ethnic groups of color are subject to hyper-critique, problematic categorization and division, and stigmatization that is inherently Eurocentric.

Assimilation theory bespeaks a colonialist mentality and centuries-old white supremacist attitudes. Assimilation theory assumes Euro-domination and justifies Eurocentrism, a belief in dominance of European models of society and human relations (“civilization”), and social practices that reinforce white elites’ power interests, ideologies and cultural mores. It is clear that the stages of assimilation Park outlines mirror the steps of European colonization (see Lyman 1973, Steinberg 2007). As the assimilation theorist Milton Gordon illustrated with the concept Anglo-conformity, assimilation has long had specific meaning and connotation: assimilation to the European ideals, behaviors, and culture of Anglo-Saxons. While Anglo-Saxons once sat atop the racial hierarchy, a number of other white ethnic groups have joined the ranks of Anglo-elite and formed a broader based white power elite. Today, a more general conformity to whiteness or white racial framing has replaced the outdated and now too-limited understanding and practice of Anglo-conformity. Like ethnicity and culture paradigms, the assimilation paradigm largely omits serious discussion of racial conflict, the societal effects and human costs of racism, and the well-organized racist ideologies and practices of the group that has the most power to define race, whites, and especially elite whites.

Washington and Park’s ideas about race reflect key elements of white-framed sociology and support a Eurocentric perspective of race. Despite his contributions to the black community, Washington failed to discuss the fundamentally unequalized racial structures and racism in the US. Elite whites’ funding for the Tuskegee Institute, the black educational institution Washington founded, demanded he remain silent about systemic racism and the powerful whites and white institutions that uphold racist society. Instead, in return for whites’ financial, political and media support, Washington downplayed and misrepresented struggles of African Americans, highlighting problems of black agency (individual and group) rather than societal problems associated with systemically racist social system and the racist institutional structures created by whites that prop that system (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903).

It is surprising that the CS Editor’s Remarks reintroduced Washington and Park’s sketchy writings on race, considering the many holes in Park’s sociological theories and Washington’s social philosophy. Park explained away Eurocentrism, while Washington downplayed it. It is contemporary sociologists’ job to see through and then discredit out-dated, ethnocentric race theories of Park and the propagandist, apologist racial rhetoric of Washington.

“Implicit Racial Bias” and Preference for Republican Candidates over Obama

At UW Today, a University of Washington publication, Molly McElroy recently published a summary of research by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington with some other psychological researchers. The title of her article is “Unconscious racial attitudes playing large role in 2012 presidential vote.”

McElroy summarizes their current and earlier research:

In a study done just prior to the 2008 presidential election, Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

They used the implicit association test (IAT), which we have discussed a bit previously here. One version of the IAT has respondents match white and black faces to desirable and undesirable words, and the speed/difficulty in matching in used to judge “implicit” or “unconscious racial bias.”

Most recently, during the 2012 Republican primaries they collected online data from nearly 15,000 voters, and have found that the intensity of white preference on a version of the IAT (and other measures) links to conservative political preferences:

Greenwald asked survey-takers about their political beliefs, how “warmly” they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of 2012, it included the five main Republican hopefuls – Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – as well as Obama.

. . . . Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by respondents’ racial attitudes, both their self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT. Greenwald emphasized that the study’s finding that some candidates are more attractive to voters with pro-white racial attitudes does not mean that those candidates are racist.

An odd comment that last one. Such preferences for whiteness over blackness are of course “racist” if one means by that term thinking and operating out of a conventional white-racist framing of U.S. society. And the Republican candidates themselves certainly did a good bit of that white racial framing over the primaries.

The journalist McElroy, and apparently some of the researchers, seem a bit surprised that President Barack Obama’s election did not reduce this white racial preference for whites. But such negative results will not be surprising to the social scientists who write for this blog, or for most of our social science and other readers, as much social science and other data beyond the IAT research articles would lead one to expect such findings.

Greenwald is cited as explaining the continuing “racial bias” among white voters in regard to President Obama with this interesting explanation:

[Greenwald] suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”

That is, whites with strong racial biases directed at black Americans may be even more disturbed now that a black man has great power as president. I suspect he is right about that, as our extensive data on the racist attacks on Obama inside and outside the Republican Party in our book, Yes We Can?: White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Election demonstrate. (I also develop a broad argument about a centuries-old link of U.S. politics to white racism in its many forms in a new Routledge (2012) book, White Party, White Government: Race Class and U.S. Politics.)

One major limitation of the typical psychological interpretations of the IAT research findings is that these otherwise creative social psychologists are handicapped by old and very limiting concepts like “bias” and “racial prejudice.” Such white racial views and attitudes are only a small part of the broad white racial frame that has been drilled into almost all American heads, of whites and others, now for centuries. That dominant white racial frame includes these racial biases but also racial stereotyping, racial narratives, racialized emotions, racial images, and inclinations to discriminate. The problem is the hoary and dominant white framing, the dominant white worldview, not just some racial bias.

In addition, IAT results showing that even relatively “egalitarian” whites still exhibit “unconscious racial bias” is much better explained as these whites revealing significant elements of a deep white racial framing—-a framing that allows more liberal whites to truly believe they are colorblind even as they still see the world very much through elements of a white racial framing of society generated in their minds from cradle to grave. Without major deframing, reframing, and counter-framing — especially in a true liberty and justice direction — the old white racial frame still dominates the landscape of white minds and the minds of many others.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Naomi Schaefer Riley: Tyranny of White Privilege

Last week, we were reminded again of the false construct of a post-racial society when Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a vitriolic and careless article in The Chronicle of Higher Education maligning three Black studies graduate students at Northwestern University, their professors, and the entire area of study. In her piece, she openly sneered at each woman’s dissertation (none of which she had read) and basically characterized their work as useless, “irrelevant,” outdated, and predicated upon victimization.

Already, responses have been generated by the NU students as well as the faculty. A Chronicle editor has also responded with a rather weak defense of Riley’s blog, claiming that, “It is a blog for opinion . . . not news reporting by the staff.” Besides the feelings of intense rage and sadness I felt over Riley publicly defaming these scholars at the beginning of their careers, I had another overwhelming feeling.


It is simply exhausting to fight those who have no awareness of the presence and manifestation of their own White privilege. It is the additional energy that Blacks must expend particularly when they dare to trespass through areas perceived as “White terrain” (Feagin 1991) which academia most certainly is.

Riley’s piece exposed the White privilege that Peggy McIntosh spoke of long ago in her 1988 landmark essay. In it, McIntosh includes a laundry list of nearly 50 invisible privileges conferred to her at birth simply by virtue of being born White. Based on Riley’s piece and her equally as sarcastic and misguided non-apology, we could adapt and add to some of McIntosh’s original items, because through Riley’s pieces, we’ve learned White privilege also includes:

1) The ability to make pronouncements and declarations on which dissertation topics constitute “legitimate debate” and who is a “legitimate scholar” based on precious few sentences about the work in question.
2) The privilege to substitute snark for responsible research and have it published in the leading publication on higher education without the editors challenging its integrity and in fact defending its inclusion as merely “an opportunity– to debate.”
3) The privilege to stunt the spirit of academic inquiry and intellectual curiosity simply because a research topic pertains to Blackness.
4) The privilege to pretend all is well where race relations are concerned and that if there are racial disparities or tensions, it’s because people of color caused them. [FYI: Ms. Riley, any of Tim Wise’s books, or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists (2009), or Joe Feagin’s recent White Racial Frame (2010) can help you with this one.]
5) The ability to attack any Black person at any time and particularly those who have achieved scholar status because they threaten White hegemony.

And so, because Ms. Riley decided to wield these elements of her privilege like a weapon, we are stuck defending ourselves and expending the energy to respond.

Essentially, what she told the NU students is: You do not belong. It’s a message sent to Blacks whether they are doctoral students at a leading research university, student-athletes on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or a child walking around a White neighborhood armed only with an iced tea and Skittles. And yes, Ms. Riley, even President Obama is regularly told he doesn’t belong when he’s the only president who’s been called a “liar” in a televised address before a joint session of Congress or who has to prove citizenship over and over again like a freed slave showing manumission papers.

Fortunately, as Black folks, we have learned to multi-task—to resist our oppression and defend ourselves and our labor even as we go about our research, teaching, and daily lives. Yet, the fact that we must do both speaks to the very nature of the racial inequality Naomi Schaefer Riley claims has all but disappeared.